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The Mission

October 12, 2015

TMI used this film with 6th formers for two reasons: first because we did a course on the history of missions and secondly as an introduction to liberation theology.

The film explores an historical incident in the colonial past of Spain and Portugal and the role of the Church in the European conquest of South America. The central characters are Fr Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) a Jesuit missionary and Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) a mercenary and slave-trader. Initially the two are in conflict over the native Guarani Indians whom Fr Gabriel seeks to convert and Mendoza to enslave, but after Mendoza kills his own brother over Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) Fr Gabriel challenges him to demonstrate penance by helping him and other Jesuits to build a mission above the waterfalls, in the heart of the Guarani’s territory, thus protecting them from slave-traders. Mendoza also becomes part of the Jesuit order.

These missions are drawn into both the Church’s political intrigues in Europe, where it is attempting a balancing act between the Spanish and Portuguese, and the wider difficulties of the Jesuit Order within the politics of the Church. The Pope has sent an emissary, Altamirano (Ray McAnally) to report on the matter. For the sake of the Church’s interests he decides that the missions should be closed and the Jesuits withdrawn which would allow the slave-trade to expand. The colonialists burn the missions and massacre both the Indians and priests and the climax of the film explores the responses of Fr Gabriel and Mendoza to this inevitable outcome — with Fr Gabriel staying true to his vision of his calling as a priest and Mendoza being true to his nature as a fighter and organizing violent resistance among the Guarani. Both fail to prevent the slaughter and die in the process.

From the Eden narratives (the loss of innocence, the quest for knowledge and sexuality) play a key part in The Mission, The Name of the Rose and Priest while the idea of sin is played down.

This subjective quest for the self and the task of mentor in this process is also crucial to The Mission and Priest where the personal struggles of Rodrigo Mendoza and Fr Greg Pilkington form a key part of the plot and where the characters of Fr Gabriel and Fr Matthew Thomas have the roles of teachers to the new initiates. However, it would be wrong to see these two films as solely about the personal pursuit of knowledge since in both we are encouraged to reflect about wider, social implications. For instance, in The Mission questions are raised about the “civilizing” aspects of European education on the Guarani Indians, while in Priest we are invited to reflect on the implications of Fr Greg’s quest for inner knowledge of himself on his parish and the Church as a whole.

For Fr Greg the search for self-knowledge and the search for his sexuality are in conflict; however, for Adso, in The Name of the Rose, the connection is more positive. His encounter with the unnamed girl in the kitchen is in contrast with the images of repressed sexuality in the monastery. It is clear that the girl is required to exchange sexual favors for food with one or more of the monks and yet her relationship to Adso seems to be of a different nature. Yet, the question still arises: does their intercourse arise out the fact that she has been led to believe that this is what men expect of her, or from an independent act of self giving? The encounter with Adso as he is leaving at the end of the film suggests the latter and it is made explicit in his final commentary, that of all the encounters he had in the monastery (including those with his mentor, Bro. William) it was the one with the girl which had the most lasting impact upon him. If this meeting awakened Adso to a new aspect of experience then sex produces a different kind of awakening in The Mission. It is Carlotta’s intimate relationship with his brother while he is away capturing slaves which acts as the catalyst for Rodrigo’s act of vengeance and it is his remorse over the killing that eventually leads him back into the jungle, this time as a Jesuit. Human sexuality is shown once again as playing an important part in the process of self-knowledge and it is also a factor in the third element: loss of innocence.

I have commented on how several of the characters in these three films are portrayed as showing a certain naivete — Fr Gabriel in his trust of the inquiry into the mission settlements; Adso in his questions to his master; Fr Greg in his reactions to the realities of parish life; Bro. William in his almost childlike enthusiasm for books. All come away from their celluloid encounters changed people. For them nothing was ever the same again and their worlds (if they survived) would be forever seen through the lenses of that experience. Even though Fr Gabriel and Rodrigo Mendoza were murdered by the slave traders the film ends with a note that the struggle goes on to this day and that there are still priests who take the side of the Indians. Perhaps the most poignant moment in The Mission comes at the end when the few Guarani children who have survived return naked into the jungle leaving behind all the trappings of the Europeans with the exception of a musical instrument — in a return to innocence. These connections with the Eden story — the quest for knowledge, the significance of human sexuality and the motif of lost innocence — all play a key part in plot and character development, but the shape of these three films also emerges through the conflict between individuals and institutions, and it is to that aspect of the drama we now turn….it is significant that in these films the corporate, repressive aspect of the Church is represented by one individual — a white, male authority figure. Significantly, the three films all share in the portrayal of hierarchical oppression within and without the institution of the Church. Thus, in The Mission it is both the Indians and the Jesuits who suffer at the hands of the Pope’s emissary, Altamirano; in The Name of the Rose, it is the local poor and the Franciscans who are tyrannized; while in Priest it is the bishop who is domineering and arrogant towards those who obstruct his career.

A key symbol for this repression is the Church’s attitude towards wealth, which can be represented much more tangibly on film than can, for instance, the more abstract concept of power. I have already mentioned that the reason for Bro. William being at the monastery was for a debate about whether Jesus and his disciples owned their clothes. If the answer to that is no, then the obvious next question is: Why then has the Church amassed all its wealth? This subplot is supported by the contrast between the opulent clothes of the prelates and the simple dress of the Franciscans; by the well-fed stomachs of the monks and the poverty of those who scavenge from the monastic community and by the inquisition into the heresy of the Dolcinites and their lifestyle of penitence and poverty. Similar features are to be found in The Mission. The rich clothes of the Pope’s emissary and the slave-traders contrast sharply with those of the Jesuits, while the simplicity of the wooden mission dwellings is very different to the stone houses and churches of the Europeans. The same is true of Priest, although it is more understated. The bishop’s attachment to the finer things of life are shown through a brief shot of an antique ink stand on his desk and, when the bishop wishes to show his displeasure with Fr Matthew, he takes away one of the priest’s few “luxuries” a dilapidated Mini Metro car. Although the word hypocrisy is not mentioned in any of the three films — it is there by implication. This tension between the corruption of the Church and the idealism of the individual is fundamental to the three plots and we must examine it in more detail.

Time and again in The Mission, The Name of the Rose and Priest we see the Church making demands on characters which they find difficult or impossible to accept. For Fr Gabriel and Rodrigo Mendoza it is the relinquishing of their mission and the abandonment of the Guarani Indians to the slave-trading colonialists. For Bro. William of Baskerville it is a different kind of abandon­ment. He clearly feels that he is being asked to give up the way of reason and logical argument in the face of irrationality and superstition. This idea is underlined further by the censorship of Aristotle’s work on humor by the librarian, the venerable Jorge. The pressure on Fr Greg Pilkington is in reconciling his sexuality, particularly his homosexuality, with the official teaching of the Church. A similar problem exists in a heterosexual context for Fr Matthew Thomas but Fr Greg also has to cope with a wider social stigma as well. This motif of male homosexuality is also a sub plot in The Name of the Rose and lies behind the first death that Bro. William is asked to investigate. The area of conflict between the individual and institutional is heightened in each case by the Church’s hypocrisy over the issue of wealth. However, if we look behind this dramatic construct it seems to me that these two elements from the three plots reflect much wider aspects of our contemporary culture.

First, the centrality of individualism in Western society is well documented but what has received less comment is the way in which the model of the individual human being has also become the model for understanding collective human organizations. In this respect “hypocrisy” (i.e. the meeting of competing demands from inconsistent environments) is seen in an individual­istic way and organizations are judged, like a person, on whether they have remained true to their ideals. Thus, just as individual hypocrisy occurs when a person fails to remain true to his or her own ideals, so organizational hypocrisy is perceived when an institution acts in different or even conflicting ways. While this makes for good drama and clear characterization, particularly in the case of the Pope’s emissary in The Mission, one of the roles that organizations can be called upon to perform is to hold together or reconcile such conflicting ideals; hence, the popularity in current organizational litera­ture for numerous diverse models or polarities marking out a spectrum of opinion. Yet, while these images allow competing convictions to be held together in the world of organizations they do not make good cinema which, as a number of commentators have noted, has been encouraged by the ideology of individualism.This is reinforced by the function of the camera which acts as the eyes of the individual viewer. It is striking that in all three films “heroic” individuals are cast against “compromised” individ­uals who represent hypocritical organizations (the pope’s emissary, Bernard Gui and the bishop).

The spectator’s identification with the camera plays an important part in the second factor on which I want to comment in this section — the concept of “role.” Identification is a key element in film theory. In their discussion of American Graffiti Lapsley and Westlake argue that the movie is, like many realist texts, concerned with the question of identity regarding the central character (Curt Henderson) and, furthermore, the identification with this character by the spectator plays a crucial role in the film: The resolution, therefore, of the question of Curt’s identity is also the production of a spectator position, one of knowledge and outside of contradiction. The spectator is seemingly outside the process and therefore can imagine him or herself as completely grasping the process.

Interestingly, the three films under discussion all revolve around pairs of characters and, in particular their justification of their role or their search for a role to play. Spectators are given a choice of identification in this process. It is not my aim to address the issue of female identification in these films, although I do recognize that with six male lead characters there are questions that can be raised regarding the place of women in all three films. Thus I shall confine my discussion to issues of identification in the area already defined — around the tension between individuals and institutions. In each film one of the male characters in the pair has arrived at an, albeit sometimes uncomfortable, accommodation with the Church (Fr Gabriel, Bro. William and Fr Matthew). They are put in a mentor role over the other character (Rodrigo Mendoza, Adso of Melk, Fr Greg) who are all learning the “script” for their part of the organization or culture which, in turn, means that the process of identification is taking place at a number of levels. To start with a spectator may identify with one or other of the two roles (mentor/student) or with the relationship or with the wider tension between the characters and the institution.

Curiously, while some people writing about cinema have criticized it for attempting to mimic the real world, others dealing with the “real” world have been keen to take up images drawn from the “fictional” world of theatre and film. Thus, the metaphors of role and script have been used to explore human social and organizational interaction. Role has been described as “A central unit of analysis in sociology and social psychology. It refers to the duties, obligations and expectation which accompany a particular position”. The idea of a script in a group context, meanwhile, refers to: “meaning-making processes within organizations . routinized responses [which] . . . facilitate the interpretation of information, actions and expectations”.

This suggests that the traditional distinction between “reality” and “fiction” is too easily drawn as well as pointing to the deeper problems of identification underlying The Mission, The Name of the Rose, and Priest. All of them seem to reflect the dysfunction in our late twentieth-century Western culture between individuals and institutions, in this case the Church. The conflict between personal lives and communal expectations is a conflict of identification, roles and scripts. There are many “parts” to play and many “film-sets” on which to play them, even in one pluralistic organization such as the Church. The dysfunctions and tensions that Rodrigo, Adso and Fr Greg face are very real in the Church but they also work as a metaphor for the issues that confront us all in learning roles and scripts in society.

The Mission and The Name of the Rose do attempt to retell and reappropriate the past. Although the latter film never escapes its literary origins and even in its motion picture version keeps the role of the narrator (Adso of Melk) to provide its framework, it does attempt to forge a link with the flow of history. The Mission too, while retaining a firm grip on its realist pretensions, also clearly establishes similar connections. It is framed by the words: “The historical events represented in this story are true, and occurred around the borderlands of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil in the year 1750.”

The movie finishes with a caption about the ongoing struggle of the Native Indians and the priests: The Indians of South America are still engaged in a struggle to defend their land and their culture. Many of the priests who, inspired by faith and love, continue to support the rights of the Indians for justice, do so with their lives.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. John Chapter 1, verse 5

Thus the past is re-appropriated and the narrative is not left rootless, although there may be questions about using uncritically the stereotype of an intimate connection between Christianity and colonialism.

Priest ends with strong echoes of the heavenly telos presented in the Book of Revelation, symbolizing an ultimate goal. In Revelation, after the tribula­tions of the end times, the community of the Lamb (the eucharistic community) are embraced by God’s love and gathered in worship wearing symbolic white robes (Rev. 7). At the end of Priest, after many trials, the abused daughter and the abused priest embrace in love at mass in a similar eucharistic context (the community of the Lamb) – a parallel that is underscored by the white vestments of the clergy. By contrast, The Mission and The Name of the Rose bear more than a passing resemblance to that alternative telos envisaged by Revelation – the violent and cataclysmic end to space and time. There is a hint of this fiery and violent ending in the myth of the lost innocence where Adam and Eve are prevented from ever returning to the Garden of Eden by the presence of an angel with a flaming sword (Gen. 3:23-4). The “apocalyptic” ending is clearly conscious in The Name of the Rose because, as we noted earlier, Eco based his novel on the seven plagues of Revelation 15 (Eco 1985) but the similarity with the way in which The Mission concludes is striking. It is tempting to note one of the main concerns in the West at the time these two films were made was the destruction of society through nuclear conflict, whereas Priest was made in a very different cultural environment with great fear over the destruction of lives through AIDS.

In The Name of the Rose there is a discussion between Bro. William and the venerable Jorge over the question of humor. The librarian believes that it would be a recipe for chaos if humanity was permitted to laugh at everything and that: “Laughter kills fear and without fear there can be no faith.. ..”

Laughter plays a small but crucial role in the other two films as well. Fr Greg is sent away from the parish for a period of readjustment with an austere priest who will only speak Latin to him and clearly regards him with loathing. There is a moment of conspiracy between Fr Matthew and Fr Greg when they use laughter to cement their bond as friends and priests, while at the same time seeing off any fear of this priest and, I suspect, the bishop and the institutional Church. In this respect Jorge was right. Humor has a complex place within groups relating to testing social phenomena like taboos, shared trust and conformity. Jorge is right in seeing that laughter and fear are intimately related and that the former can kill the latter. However, it is also true that laughter can bring fear to the surface.

In The Mission, after discovering that Carlotta loves his brother instead of himself, Rodrigo storms back out into the street and picks an argument with a bystander who was laughing at something unrelated but who Rodrigo, in his state of mind, thinks is laughing at him. His brother chases him and says that Rodrigo’s argument is with him and not with this stranger. The ensuing duel and killing is crucial to moving the plot forward. None of these three films could be remotely described as comedies and yet laughter plays an important point in each of them. If the romantic view of Armageddon, or the human telos, is a loving embrace and the radical vision is the destruction of existing order — is it the cynic who is left to laugh at our fragile efforts to reconcile our personal values and our communal lives?

I have argued that The Mission, The Name of the Rose, and Priest dramatically explore a number of aspects of the human condition: our quest for a teleological frame of reference, our communal search for meaningful roles and scripts and the double-edged nature of the human desire for knowledge with its concomitant loss of childlike innocence. In addition, I have suggested that there are various overt or subtle cross-references to the myths of Eden and Armageddon in the Jewish and Christian traditions. The three films all have a distinct moment of closure which returns the focus to individuals. For the first two it is a concluding word from the narrators (the pope’s emissary and Adso), while for Priest it is the hug for Fr Greg and Lisa in the context of the mass. I have touched on the importance of individuality in movies as a genre, even in representing organizations. Perhaps one of their functions in modern, or even postmodern, society is in providing tragic and comedic narrative for us to explore our identities and roles. As Umberto Eco points out in his observations about The Name of the Rose: a novel has nothing to do with words in the first instance. Writing a novel is a cosmological matter, like the story told by Genesis (we all have to choose our role models, as Woody Allen puts it).

The same (individualistic) God-like perspective may also be reflected in both the process of making a film and, indeed, the creative act of watching it. Explorations in Theology and Film: Movies and Meaning – ed. Clive Marsh & Gaye Ortiz pp. 181f

TM 2The movie The Mission makes the very same point in regard to the Jesuit missions to the South American Guarani Indians in the eighteenth century. The mission led by one Father Gabriel, helped by his acolyte and converted slave trader, Father Roderigo, is eventually ceded by the Spanish to Portuguese government forces who, aided and abetted by the very same slave traders, destroy the mission outposts. Father Gabriel, faced with this betrayal by his own religious superiors, chooses the way of pacifist self-sacrifice, while Father Roderigo trains the Indians in armed resistance. Both are killed, but the question – dramatically and deliberately fram through the action and musical overture of the film – poignant rests over the sad denouement of the film: Were both these m being obedient to the witness of the crucified Christ in refusing submission to and actively resisting unjustly propagated evil violence? ”

Metavista, the Bible, Church and Mission in an Age of Imagination by Colin Greene and Martin Robinson p. 148

The movie The Mission makes the very same point in regard to the Jesuit missions to the South American Guarani Indians in the eighteenth century. The mission led by one Father Gabriel, helped by his acolyte and converted slave trader, Father Roderigo, is eventually ceded by the Spanish to Portuguese government forces who, aided and abetted by the very same slave traders, destroy the mission outposts. Father Gabriel, faced with this betrayal by his own religious superiors, chooses the way of pacifist self-sacrifice, while Father Roderigo trains the Indians in armed resistance. Both are killed, but the question – dramatically and deliberately framed through the action and musical overture of the film – poignant rests over the sad denouement of the film: Were both these m being obedient to the witness of the crucified Christ in refusing submission to and actively resisting unjustly propagated evil violence?”



Gabriel: If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that, Rodrigo.

[Last Lines] Altamirano: So, your Holiness, now your priests are dead, and I am left alive. But in truth it is I who am dead, and they who live. For as always, your Holiness, the spirit of the dead will survive in the memory of the living.

Mendoza: For me there is no redemption, no penance great enough.

Gabriel: There is. But do you dare to try it?

Mendoza: Do you dare to see it fail?

Altamirano: With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued the entire continent.

Altamirano: [to Cabeza and Hontar] And you have the effrontery to tell me that this slaughter was necessary?

[Mendoza is repeatedly dragging a load of armor up a cliff as penance for killing his brother] Fielding: How long must he carry that stupid thing?

Gabriel: God knows.

Altamirano: Your Holiness, a surgeon to save the body must often hack off a limb. But in truth nothing could prepare me for the beauty and the power of the limb that I had come here to sever.

[first lines] Altamirano: Your Holiness, the little matter that brought me here to the furthest edge of your light on Earth is now settled. The Indians are once more free to be enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese settlers. I don’t think that’s hitting the right note. Begin again… Your Holiness, I write to you in this year of Our Lord 1758 from the southern continent of the Americas, from the town of Asunción, in the Province of La Plata, two weeks march from the great mission of San Miguel. These missions have provided a refuge for the Indians against the worst depredations of the settlers and have earned much resentment because of it. The noble souls of these indians incline towards music. Indeed, many a violin played in the academies of Rome itself has been made by their nimble and gifted hands. It was from these mission the Jesuit fathers carried the word of God to the high and undiscovered plateau to those Indians still existing in their natural state and received in return, martyrdom.

Altamirano: What was your income last year?

Jesuit: Last year, 120,000 escudos.

Altamirano: And how was it distributed?

Jesuit: It is shared among them equally. This is a community.

Altamirano: Ah yes, there is a French radical group that teaches that doctrine.

Jesuit: Your Eminence, it was the doctrine of the early Christians.

Sebastian: Your Christian community is commercially competitive.

Altamirano: Yes. It’s very prosperous. Isn’t that precisely why you want to take it over?

Sebastian: No. You should’ve achieved a noble failure if you wanted the state’s approval. There’s nothing we like better than a noble failure. It’s deeply reassuring to a trading nation such as my own.

Altamirano: Tell them they must leave the missions. They must submit to the will of God.

Gabriel: They say it was the will of God that they came out of the jungle and built the mission. They don’t understand why God has changed his mind.

Gabriel: We are not the members of a democracy, Father. We are the members of an order.

Gabriel: So you’re hunting above the falls now, Captain Mendoza? [pauses] We’re building a mission here. We’re going to make Christians of these people!

Mendoza: If you have the time.

Mendoza: Leave me alone. You know what I am.

Gabriel: Yes. You are a mercenary. You are a slave trader. And you killed your brother. I know. And you loved him… although you chose a strange way to show it.

Fielding: Father, he’s done this penance long enough, and well, the other brothers think the same.

Gabriel: But he doesn’t think so, John. Until he does, neither do I.

Altamirano: The Garden of Eden!

Gabriel: It’s a trifle overgrown.

N/A: The Indians of South America are still engaged in a struggle to defend their land and their culture. May of the priests who, inspired by Faith and Love continue to support the rights of the Indians for justice, do so with their lives.

Mendoza: Father, I’ve come to ask you to bless me.

Gabriel: No. If you’re right, you’ll have God’s blessing. If you’re wrong, my blessing won’t mean anything.

Gabriel: Come with me to my mission in San Carlos. There’s so many distractions in here. It’s hard to see anything clearly. I think, that, there your prayers might meet with better fortune. I think, there, God would tell you what it would be good to do. And He’d give you the strength and the grace to do it whatever it costs you.

Mendoza: I want to renounce my vows of obedience.

Gabriel: Get out.

Mendoza: I want to explain…

Gabriel: Get out, Rodrigo. I won’t listen to you. [pause] Just you?

Mendoza: No, it’s Ralph and John too.

Gabriel: What do you want captain, an honorable death?

Mendoza: They want to live, Father. They say that God has left them, He’s deserted them. Has He?

Gabriel: You shouldn’t have become a priest.

Mendoza: But I am a priest, and they need me.

Gabriel: Then help them as a priest! If you die with blood on your hands, Rodrigo, you betray everything we’ve done. You promised your life to God. And God is love!

Altamirano: Why must they fight? Why can’t they return to the jungle?

Gabriel: Because this is their home. Did you know this was going to be your decision?

Altamirano: Yes.

Gabriel: Then why did you come, Your Eminence?

Altamirano: To persuade you not to resist the transfer of the mission territories. If the Jesuits resist the Portuguese then the Jesuit order will be expelled from Portugal. And if Portugal, then Spain, France, Italy… who knows? If your order is to survive at all, Father, the missions must here be sacrified. [a native child talks to Gabriel] What are they saying?

Gabriel: They say they didn’t want to go back to the forest because the devil lives there. They want to stay here.

Altamirano: And what did you say?

Gabriel: I said I’d stay with them.

Altamirano: With an orchestra, the Jesuits could have subdued the whole continent. So it was that the Indians of the Guarani were brought finally to account to the everlasting mercy of God, and to the short-lived mercy of man.

Mendoza: For me, there is no redemption.

Gabriel: God gave us the burden of freedom. You chose your crime. Do you have the courage to choose your penance? Do you dare do that?

Mendoza: I’m sorry, I was trained as a mercenary, not as a cook.

Altamirano: [about native boy] Don Cabeza, how can you possibly refer to this child as an animal?

Cebeza: A parrot can taught to sing, Your Eminence.

Altamirano: Ah yes, but how does one teach it to sing as melodiously as this?

Cebeza: Your Eminence. This is a child of the jungle, an animal with a human voice. It if were human, an animal would cringe at its vices. These creatures are lethal and lecherous. They will have to be subdued by the sword and brought to profitable labor by the whip.

Altamirano: I assure you, Father Gabriel, that the courts of Europe are a jungle in comparison with which your jungle here is a well-kept garden.

Cebeza: Perhaps I’m missing something. I can’t see any difference between this and my own.

Gabriel: That is the difference. This plantation is theirs.

TM 3

Cebeza: I cannot and will not accept a challenge from a priest. His cloth protects him.

Mendoza: My cloth protects *you*!

The bit at the end, with the monstrance, is very powerful.

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From → Church History, Film

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